Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > The Simchat Torah War > A Torah Perspective on War and Others Worldly Affairs

A Torah Perspective on War and Others Worldly Affairs

Human initiative is part and parcel of a Torah attitude toward all things earthly. The point is especially salient concerning our attitude toward army service.

Shevat 5784, February 2024

One day, perhaps during the Protective Edge campaign in 2014, one of my sons returned home from school, citing an especially egregious claim from his teacher. “The army,” he quoted from the class rabbi, “is an army of suiciders; every killed soldier is a wasted life.” The teacher explained that if everyone left the army to study in Yeshiva, there would be no need for fighting. What a tragic waste.

The opinion, of course, is unusual and extreme. I want to think that only a tiny percentage would agree. Some days ago, however, I saw it echoed in a public letter posted in a significant Charedi city, which claimed that the recently established immediate response team only harms the city (due to objections, the team was disbanded). The fact we can even conjure up such opinions, let alone teach them in class, points to a deep problem.

Preferring to leave the delicate issue alone, the Charedi space lacks any “tradition” concerning how to think about the army and its many issues

Preferring to leave the delicate issue alone, the Charedi space lacks any “tradition” concerning how to think about the army and its many issues. Given a thought vacuum, it should not be surprising that the conceptual pit, like that of Yosef, will be filled with snakes and scorpions.

Below, I wish to make some observations on how we need to think about a Jewish army. These are based on a short Talmudic statement concerning the Torah approach to derech eretz—worldly affairs. Though they relate to the personal realm, I believe the message is no less (and perhaps more) essential, even in the public sphere. In conclusion, I will briefly return to the perennial issue of Charedi army service.

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The Gemara in Nida (70b) mentions three “matters of derech eretz” that Rabbi Yehoshua taught in response to the question of the elders of Alexandria. All three relate to human achievement in various areas of earthly conduct. I will cite one of them:

What should a person do to become wealthy? He said to them: He should increase his business and conduct his dealings in good faith. They said to him: Many have done so, and it did not avail them? [He answered them:] Rather, they should pray before the One to Whom wealth belongs, as it is stated: “Mine is the silver, and Mine the gold” (Chaggai 2:8).

The other two areas Rabbi Yehoshua addressed, wisdom and children, follow the same pattern. In all of them, we must engage in worldly activity and add a prayer to Him to whom wealth, wisdom, and children belong. After each statement, the Gemara asks what Rabbi Yehoshua meant to teach us and immediately responds: “One without the other is not sufficient.” We need them both.

Rabbi Yehoshua teaches us three central messages for life.

 

Who Creates Wealth?

The first message related to derech eretz in the simplest sense. As an aside, we learn from the conversation that the aspiration to riches is no sin. Indeed, the Magan Avraham (Siman 248) writes that it is permitted to leave the Land of Israel even to amass wealth beyond one’s basic requirements. This, too, is considered a mitzvah. The insight deserves separate treatment and relates to the tension between the modern-capitalist society that created consumer culture and a more modest, traditional society in which the Rambam could instruct a person to “perform a little labor every day, to ensure his sustenance, and spend rest of his day and night occupied in Torah study” (Talmud Torah 3:9).

My focus, however, is on Rabbi Yehoshua’s assertion that the path to wealth is paved with stones of work and commerce: “He should increase his business.” The Satmar Rebbe reportedly said that one may engage in segulos for one’s livelihood only until eight o’clock in the morning. At that stage, a person must go to work. Indeed, Rabbi Yehoshua recommends augmenting one’s business dealings and not such activities as reciting parashas ha-man or eating the melaveh le’malka meal. One must also daven to Hashem, as I will elaborate later; first of all, however, one simply has to work harder.

As we know—those of us who grew up in a Charedi environment know it well—some oppose this view of reality. Mesilas Yesharim, for instance, indicates that having worked a little, all the rest makes no difference:

A person could be sedentary and idle, and the [Divine] decree of his income would nonetheless be fulfilled, were it not for the fact that all human beings are subject to the primordial fine of “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread.” This is why a person must make some effort for his sustenance, for the supreme King decreed it, and it is like a tax that pervades the entire human race and from which there is no escape. […] The result is not achieved by one’s effort, yet the effort remains necessary, and any work input discharges his duty. […] Having done a small amount of work, a person has nothing left to do but trust in his Maker. He need not be troubled over anything worldly, so his mind will be clear and his heart prepared for true piety and the labor of the pure (Chapter 21).

Based on this passage, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt”l, explained that the only reason we need to engage in labor of any kind is so that our livelihood does not become a miracle. For this purpose, we must do “minimum work.” As Rabbi Dessler cites with admiration, Rabbi Zundel of Salant suffices with buying a single lottery ticket, “for if I win the lottery, I will be able to attribute it to natural ways.” The rule, as he stated it, is that “a person will never earn more on account of increased labor,” as he elaborated further: “There is no substance whatsoever to nature, and it is nothing but a trial; only the Divine will makes a difference” (Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Vol. 1, pp. 187ff).

When we find our income insufficient to meet our family expenses, we will seek to increase our income by adding working hours or switching to a more lucrative profession or employer. Moreover, normative halacha agrees with this assessment

One of the major difficulties with this approach is that nobody, quite literally, lives by it. Both a high-school girl considering which profession to take up and the post-high-school principal considering which professional courses to offer will take income levels of various professions into account. Nobody in his or her right mind—certainly not today, when the pay gap between different professions is huge—can imagine that the choice of profession makes no difference. When we find our income insufficient to meet our family expenses, we will seek to increase our income by adding working hours or switching to a more lucrative profession or employer. Moreover, normative halacha agrees with this assessment. If a man is unwilling to work more than two hours a day to support his home, which leads it to the brink of total collapse, Beis Din will coerce him to work longer hours (see Tosafos, Ketuvos 63b). The claim that working longer makes no difference will fall on deaf ears.

In other words, rather than the Rabbi Dessler attitude, we follow the approach of Rabbeinu Nissim, as noted in his derushim (Derush 10). Dwelling on the words of the Pasuk, “For it is He who gives you strength to make wealth” (Devarim 8:18), he explains that we create wealth through our own labor, yet it is God who gives us the capacity to do so: “It does not state that Hashem, your God, gives you the wealth […] but rather than although you create the wealth by your own power, remember that it is God who grants you the power.” This idea is clearly stated in the above words of Rabbi Yehoshua: we create our own wealth by augmenting work and commerce, but it is Hashem who empowers us to do so.

Rabbi Yehoshua thus refutes the denial of our basic human intuition and confirms that which we always knew—namely, that somebody who augments his working hours or business activities will, in all likelihood, augment his wealth. Human industry is not merely a “condition” for receiving Divine abundance; it actually achieves it—though, as the Gemara points out, it is by no means foolproof. The world, even the Jewish one, does not deviate from the ways of nature. It is worth remembering this always.

 

Working the Torah Way

A second message that emerges from the teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua is that our engagement in commerce should be done in the Jewish way: “and conduct his dealings in good faith.” Moreover, coupled with augmenting our business, adhering to the Torah path in earthly matters is part of the recipe for success.

This, too, is a great and central principle in life. On the one hand, the Torah instructs us how to live within a framework of connection with God: a path of holiness and service. However, the Torah’s instruction is not limited to the spiritual. It includes instruction on how to live a good life on the material, earthly level. Indeed, part of our core belief is that a life according to Torah principles is a good and wholesome life. The case of tzaddik vera lo, a righteous person who lives in suffering and hardship, is a departure from the rule. It presents a theological “problem.” The default is that a Torah life is a good life.

This is the basic meaning of the words, “And you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances, which a man shall perform and live by them, I am Hashem” (Vayikra 18:5). The laws of the Torah and its values are the recipe for life itself, a good life on earth. The Rambam thus states that the Torah mitzvos are “the great good that Hashem has wrought for the settlement of this world” (Yosodos HaTorah 4:13). Indeed, part of the greatness of the Torah is that it gives life to its doers in this world, and not in the next alone (Avot 6, 7).

If the entire point of earthly existence, in all its variety, is bringing us to the eternal World to Come, it follows that our total focus should be “there” rather than “here”

Even in this matter, we are all too familiar with those who oppose the approach. Although the Torah sees earthly human achievement in a positive light, Rabbi Yaakov states in the Mishnah that “this world is like a vestibule before the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule, so that you may enter the palace” (Avos 4:16). Taking this position to an extreme can lead a person to entirely negate the significance of our earthly reality, for who in his right mind invests significant resources into a vestibule? If the entire point of earthly existence, in all its variety, is bringing us to the eternal World to Come, it follows that our total focus should be “there” rather than “here.”

This is the reason, at least in part, for the disdain sometimes demonstrated by parts of Charedi society for earthly matters such as environmental issues, ensuring safety measures, urban planning, and even maintaining personal hygiene. “Kol Ha-Chinuch,” an educational publication that projects a radical yet fairly mainstream Charedi voice, explained that the penetration of “personal hygiene” into Charedi schools (examples included tidiness and cleanliness, a healthy diet, physical exercise, and brushing teeth) presents an educational hazard, since “each one of us senses that such matters contravene Charedi sensibilities, and are lights years away from the original Jewish spirit on which we were raised” (Kol Ha-Chinuch, 3 Nisan 5777).

In a similar vein, this is among the reasons for the general passivity of the more conservative factions of Orthodox Judaism in relation to affairs of the state and the wider world. The opposition to Zionism was formulated in the religious language of fear of secularization, concern over the change in the character of Judaism, and the prohibition of “climbing the wall”—settling the Holy Land by political force. Behind it, however, was an internal motion that opposes earthly activity per se. We need to invest in the eternal spirit rather than the temporal and transient body. It is wasteful to expend precious resources on developing a country’s infrastructure or the war against cancer. Both are equally alien to the “Charedi sensibility” referenced in Kol Ha-Chinuch.

Rabbi Yehoshua’s teachings negate this position. Admittedly, one perspective on our reality is “the world as a vestibule,” as stated by Rabbi Yaakov and underscored by the Ramchal at the beginning of Mesilas Yesharim. Yet, many Torah verses emphasize a different perspective in which mending and refining our world is the end itself. Rabbi Leib Minsberg was fond of pointing out how the verses describe the Jewish idyllic condition at the peak of Shlomo’s reign in markedly highly earthly terms: “Judah and Israel were numerous, like the sand that is by the sea for multitude, eating, drinking and rejoicing.” (I Kings 4:20). This is just one verse among many hundreds.

We should strive to live a good and wholesome life. Moreover, the Torah directs us toward this end. As God rejoices in His actions (“let Hashem rejoice in His works”—Tehillim 104:31), we ought to rejoice in ours. This is part of the Divine will: “Taste and see that Hashem is good” (Tehillim 34:9).

Besides this, we must also pray.

 

Infusing Prayer

Rabbi Yehoshua’s third message is that alongside worldly action, we need to pray. Human experience teaches us that countless circumstances can thwart our best efforts to succeed in earthly endeavors. Though we do our best, our hopes are pinned on Hashem, the trust we place in our Father in Heaven.

As explained above, human action is real and effective; blessed are those who enjoy the labor of their own hands. Precisely because of this, the Torah warns us against the danger that always lurks, “For you shall eat and be satisfied, and build good houses and dwell, and your cattle and your sheep shall multiply, and silver and gold shall multiply unto you, and all that you have shall multiply, and your heart was raised up and you forgot Hashem, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Devarim 8:12-14).

How do we remind ourselves that it is not “my strength and the might of my hand that wrought me this wealth,” but rather God “gives you strength to make wealth” (ibid. 17-18)? How do we articulate and internalize that without God, we would be incapable of achieving anything? The answer is prayer. Prayer grounds our human action on Divine foundations. It expresses our core belief that God gives us the power to act in the world, and without Him, our efforts would be in vain.

On the one hand, the world functions based on well-known principles of nature: it is a world of derech eretz, the “way of the world.” On the other hand, we must infuse the earthly with the holy and seek the Divine presence in the work of our hands

Humanity has not devised a way to ensure our success in earthly endeavors. The unknown remains greater than the known, and human experience teaches us that what seems promising often disappoints. So why do we continue to endeavor? Why do we initiate and seek to improve our situation and that of others in the knowledge that it might all end in disappointment and despair? The answer is prayer, which expresses our hope and confidence in God, who is the source of all goodness and wishes our success. Sometimes, we fail. But God is with us even in our failures, ensuring they are somehow part of a process that is ultimately good.

The Ramchal thus writes (in his “Treatise on Hope”) that the only true reliance is reliance on Hashem, “and all other dependencies are a lie.” “Trust in God is true trust, as it is said, ‘And you know that I am Hashem, those who place their hopes in Me will never be shamed.” Our labor stands on solid foundations only when we place our hopes in God and trust Him to speed our paths and direct them toward our destiny.

On the one hand, the world functions based on well-known principles of nature: it is a world of derech eretz, the “way of the world.” On the other hand, we must infuse the earthly with the holy and seek the Divine presence in the work of our hands. “One without the other is not sufficient.”

 

A Jewish Army

And now to the army issue. As in other earthly matters, our national security must also follow the path of derech eretz. We must ensure a strong army and solid national security infrastructures, both on the national and local levels. One can only express wonder over attitudes vocalized in certain Charedi cities and concentrations, whereby internal security organizations actually impair the settlements’ protection by (somehow) removing Hashem’s supervision from them. Our simple responsibility is to establish the necessary security arrangements to protect ourselves from our many enemies; thinking otherwise, let alone acting otherwise, is folly at best.

However, alongside a strong and efficient defense, we must add the two other components learned from Rabbi Yehoshua’s words. One is that the army must fight a “Jewish war.” Several Torah verses teach us a range of instructions and values related to the Jewish army camp. One of them pertains to the sanctity of the camp: “For Hashem, your God, walks in the midst of your camp to save you and deliver your enemies before you; and your camp shall be holy, so that He will not see a shameful thing among you and turn away from behind you” (Devarim 23:15). Another Torah instruction states that war against the enemy must be preceded by a call for peace (Devarim 20:10-11). Moreover, we must fight without fear and trepidation and know that “Hashem, your God, is the one who fights for you (Devarim 3:22). There are those who must fight the war, and those who must stay at home (for a non-mitzvah war).

One can only express wonder over attitudes vocalized in certain Charedi cities and concentrations, whereby internal security organizations actually impair the settlements’ protection by (somehow) removing Hashem’s supervision from them

The words “until it is conquered,” ad ridtah, which are noted in the context of a siege against the enemy, also teach us a Torah war value: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them […] Only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy and cut down, and build a bulwark against the city that makes war with you, until it is conquered” (Devarim 20:19-20). A siege should be applied until the city’s surrender. Clearly, we were either unable or unwilling to follow this advice in the current campaign against Hamas’s Gaza. This might have been for legitimate reasons, but it has sadly exacted a high price tag.

Finally, we must add the prayer dimension, beseeching Hashem to be with us in the midst of the battle camp, to speed our way and assist us in fighting the wars of Israel that are themselves the wars of Hashem: “He should realize that he is fighting for the sake of the oneness of God’s Name” (Rambam, Laws of War 7:15). We fight our own battles, yet our protection is from Hashem: “Israel, trust in Hashem, He is their help and their shield” (Tehillim 115:9).

In the style of Rabbi Yehoshua, the following formulation might apply: “What must a state do to achieve victory in battle? Increase military power and observe the sanctity of the camp. Many have done so, and it did not avail them? Rather, they should beseech the One to Whom power belongs, as it is stated: “Hashem is a man of war” (Shemos 15:3), and it is said, “For Hashem, your God, walks in the midst of your camp to save you and to deliver your enemies before you” (Devarim 23:15).

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A Charedi acquaintance, who has been serving in the reserves since October 7th at the Shura camp of the military rabbinate near Ramla, told me a story filled with disappointment and frustration. His task, which continues until today, was to take part in the unspeakable job of sorting and identifying the bodies of soldiers and citizens who were slaughtered in the Hamas attack on Simchas Torah. Recently, he stopped for a Charedi couple while driving out of Jerusalem. Upon opening the passenger door and seeing a man in uniform, the husband said he preferred to decline the ride. “My rabbis told me that you lack Divine protection. My wife is pregnant, and we need protection, so I’m going to give it up.” A true and incredulous story: a Charedi couple was unwilling to ride in a car with a Charedi uniformed driver, who has made incredible sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish people since Simchas Torah, because his soldier status takes away Hashem’s protection. Stunning.

It is crucial to internalize the simple insights of Rabbi Yehoshua: we need a strong army, we need a Jewish army, and we need an army that combines warfare and prayer

Like the story I opened with, the tale is extreme and unrepresentative. Yet, it indicates a trend. In Modi’in Illit (Kiryat Sefer), a Charedi settlement in the Binyamin region, army forces were reportedly subject to physical and verbal violence, leading it (among other factors) to pull out some of its forces. Citizens quickly clarified that the majority do not condone such behavior—but such stories testify to the importance of opinions and mindsets. It is crucial to internalize the simple insights of Rabbi Yehoshua: we need a strong army, we need a Jewish army, and we need an army that combines warfare and prayer. I think it offers a good starting position.

I wrote the Hebrew version of this article while my eyes streamed with tears upon returning from the funerals of Gavriel Bloom and Yakir Hexter, two wonderful warriors who fell in battle. May the words be le’iluy nishmatam, for their merit and that of all those who have fallen in the campaign. We are blessed with exceptional soldiers who wage war with tremendous courage, a deep consciousness of fighting God’s war against our enemies, and intense prayer. There is no doubt that the entry of Charedim into the army—a process whose beginnings are already evident and which is destined to grow and flourish—will add still more holiness and derech eretz to the nation.

One thought on “A Torah Perspective on War and Others Worldly Affairs

  • My view on Charedi military service remains as follows.

    There are many barriers. But not all of those barriers are about service itself. Some are about the suitability of the environment.

    Thus we should disentangle two things – military service, and the IDF environment. If we could have military service in an environment tailored for Charedim, would it not help to overcome some of the barriers?

    Clearly not all Charedim would rush to enlist. But perhaps many more would. Maybe enough to take the sting out of the issue.

    What does it entail? It entails creating a parallel organisation to the IDF, institutionally separate from it, but coordinating closely. An inexact analogy – United Hatzala versus MDA.

    With freedom to design a military service institution tailored for Charedim (and maybe religious zionists too), would it be beyond imagination to imagine a day involving 7 hours Torah study and 7 hours of service? And a professional career to follow service?

    This idea has been very much ignored in every circle I have raised it. Why?

    Is it because it wouldn’t make a difference – no matter what environment, no Charedi would enlist? I don’t think so. We see that Charedi society is not monolithic, and some elements are more receptive than others.

    Is it because in Israel, it has to be the IDF or nothing? Too much Zionist dogma?

    I think we are duty bound to think creatively, and to do everything possible to take account the needs and interests of all sectors of our society.

    Whatever our religious outlook, and notwithstanding derech eretz, achdut, arevut and ahavat yisrael are also essential uncontested values.

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